Vocabulary and Grammar in Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson
Early in my writing career I regularly participated in read-and-critique groups. Each of us took a turn reading aloud from one of our own newly completed chapters and then accepted verbal comments from the other aspiring novelists. More than once someone would tell me that my vocabulary was too difficult for my teen audience. It was suggested that I use simpler words.
I bridled at that and still do. I firmly believe that authors of teen novels can use rich, complex language if done in context and with purpose. It is not necessary to “write down” to readers. My goal is to produce the best writing I can, and if a reader is unfamiliar with the occasional word (even though I’ve used it in context) then I expect them to look it up in a dictionary, be it a hardcover one from a bookshelf, or an electronic one on a computer or phone.
Nurturing language has never been more important. Because of the widespread use of electronic communication—texting, tweeting, tagging—where minimal space takes precedence over clarity, a great number of teens are allowing their writing and reading skills to diminish.
A professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University recently warned that rampant texting is exacting “compromises on traditional, cultural writing” abilities of today’s teens. “Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13-17-year-olds,” says S. Shyam Sundar, “may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar.” Teens who took the professor’s grammar test, for example, couldn’t discern the difference between “lose” and “loose” or “accept” and “except.”
At a writing camp held at the University of Central Florida, another professor also bemoaned the negative effect that instant communication is having on writing skills. “Social media takes out all the imaginative threads, descriptions and interesting parts of a language,” said Terry Thaxton. “I find that troubling.”
The argument can be made that language is dynamic, always evolving (or for the cynical, devolving) and that teens are communicating in a language that they understand. But today’s teens will not always be talking among themselves. They will be speaking with future employers, potential partners, perhaps world leaders. They will need to understand the difference between “nonplussed” and “nonchalant.” From “accepting your proposition” to “taking exception to your proposition.” And they can begin to master language, painlessly and even pleasurably, in a well-written novel with a rich vocabulary.
No, teen readers do not have to limit themselves to “serious books” only. Just as there’s always room for a little “junk food” in one’s diet, there’s a place for the “summer beach read,” the “guilty pleasure” or the book that “everyone’s talking about.” But these stories will never be as satisfying as time spent with a complex fictional character in a colorfully drawn world.
Tweets and texts are fine, and fun, in day-to-day life. Instant communication can bring us closer as a society. But language is what defines our society and I urge every writer to access its riches.